The American Medical and Graduate Departments of Biochemistry Annual Meeting

Bruce J. Nicholson

AMGDB Annual Meeting in Costa Rica: Jan 13-17th, 2016

We were delighted to have the honor of hosting Mary Woolley, president & CEO of Research!America, at the annual meeting of Biochemistry Department Chairs from North America.  In attendance were chairs from 47 different departments of biochemistry from across the U.S., as well as three from Canada and one from Puerto Rico.  A major theme of this year’s meeting was to identify potential strategies in response to the reduction in funding for biomedical research in the United States in recent years. Last year we had reports presented by the presidents of the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) and Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) that highlighted the gravity of the problems facing both basic and translational research. This year, we asked several major players in the field of biomedical research funding and advocacy to discuss possible solutions. Talks were presented by Keith Yamamoto of the University of California San Francisco, a close advisor to NIH and advocate for changing how research is funded; Jon Lorsch, Director of the NIGMS and a leader in innovative funding ideas at the NIH; Wayne Wahls, a faculty of the University of Arkansas who has studied inequities in the geographical distribution of funding in the United States; and Mary Woolley who discussed how scientists need to engage to change and sculpt the nation’s conversation about science.

Mary brought some intriguing insights regarding how the public perceives science, which is all important, since we need public support to ensure that biomedical research remains a priority in the mind of the public, and hence a priority for our elected officials. The message was clear: as a group we are not doing enough public education and outreach, and as chairs of biomedical departments we have the chance to galvanize ourselves and our departments as advocates for science by visiting congressmen, engaging schools, inviting patient advocacy groups or the local science journalists to our department. Madhavi Kadakia from Wayne State University argued that if all scientists devoted 1% of their time to advocacy and public science education, we could make great inroads in enhancing public support for science.  Mary Woolley noted that 70% of Americans cannot name a living scientist, and 55% cannot name a place where research is conducted!  AMGDB’s membership is sensitive to this issue.  Jim Broach from Penn State University in Hershey recounted sitting in a restaurant with a colleague while writing equations describing his work on the paper tablecloth, and having a patrons come up and sheepishly ask if he was a scientist. When he answered yes, the questioner immediately turned to a friend and said “See, I told you we might meet one here!” There are also some examples of faculty engaging science advocacy. For example, Rich Eckert, from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, describe a faculty managed science advocacy program in the biochemistry department where teams of faculty and students go out and visit congressmen and senators to advocate for the importance of biomedical science and research funding. Keith Yamamoto eloquently summarized things saying, “As a group, we have done a great job on making our jobs seem awful, which is really quite difficult given how much we all love what we do!”

Bruce J. Nicholson is the Past-President of the Association of Medical and Graduate Departments of Biochemistry.

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Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.
Abraham Lincoln